Q&A: Kathleen Hanna On The New Julie Ruin Record, The Legacy Of Riot Grrl, And The Illness That Derailed Her Entire Life
If you’ve been paying attention to music and/or pop culture for the past couple of decades, then Kathleen Hanna hardly needs an introduction. As a founding member of Bikini Kill and the creative progenitor of the Riot Grrl movement, Hanna helped inspire a generation of young women (and troubled gay boys like myself) to pick up guitars, make noise, make trouble, and basically get radicalized about things like feminism and human rights. In addition to her work with dance-pop juggernaut Le Tigre throughout the 2000s, Hanna also released a much-beloved solo album (back in 1997) under the name Julie Ruin. It was a project that she fully expected to return to at some point, though she never could have predicted that a prolonged mystery illness would basically derail her life for nearly half a decade. The story of Hanna’s struggle to regain her health and return to music is fully explored in The Punk Singer — an excellent new documentary by Sini Anderson and Tamra Davis currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, which follows Hanna over the course of a year, during which time she discovers that she’s been suffering for years from undiagnosed Lyme Disease. With her illness now in remission and backed by a new band (that includes former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox and Kiki & Herb’s Kenny Mellman), Hanna is finally poised to release a new album — the Julie Ruin’s Run Fast, due next month — and get back to the thing that made her famous: getting on stage and letting rip with what is arguably one of the most iconic voices in the history of punk rock.
STEREOGUM: I’m so pleased to be able to do this. I’m sure people probably tell you this constantly, but for me — as a queer kid growing up in Oklahoma — your work has been super important.
KATHLEEN HANNA: Wow, thanks! That’s really sweet. People do tell me all the time. Every day. I wish! [laughs].
STEREOGUM: They should tell you that every day. Anybody that has seen or read about The Punk Singer sort of knows now about what was going on with you during those years when you were ill and not making any music. Was there a point at which you’d just assumed that you’d never make music again at all?
HANNA: Yeah. The whole time. I mean I thought Le Tigre was it. I mean, when we broke up — well we didn’t actually even really ever break up, it was just like a I can’t do this for a while kind of thing but, um, I kind of thought that was it for me. As things got worse and worse and worse, I was pretty convinced that, you know, at the very least I wouldn’t be able to tour. Even making the record, I was kinda like I’m never gonna be able to perform live. But no … this is a really corny embarrassing thing, or whatever, but I thought about this when I was ill: I started gardening when I was sick and it was one of the only physical activities that I was able to do, and even sometimes that was too difficult. When I started gardening and realizing that you need a certain kind of soil and a certain kind of sunlight in order to grow certain things, I started applying that same thinking to my life. I was like, “Okay, what kind of plant can I grow in this soil that I’ve been given?” Because sometimes like, you know, if you live in Arizona and it’s really hot and dry you can still grow, like, succulents or whatever. You know what I mean? And if you’re in Jersey you can grow different plants in different soils. I was like, “Okay, I had this one kind of soil before and now I have this other kind of soil. So what can I still do?” So I went to school for a little while and I took some interior design classes, which is something I had always been interested in, and I did a bunch of other stuff. I wrote a comedy series that we’re trying to sell right now. I archived all my stuff just in case things with my health got really bad, which seemed like the way things were going. And then I was like, you know, what I really wanna do is make one more record. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but I felt like I had to at least try. I just needed one more record. You know when you’re like, “I have to!” — it’s almost like if you have a bad show and then you’re like, I have to have a really good show to cover the fart-smell of the bad show I just played or whatever. I didn’t feel like Le Tigre’s last record sucked, I actually liked it; other people didn’t like it that much, but I did. I just definitely didn’t want my last record to be a major label record, because that was just an experiment. To me it was really important that someday in my life I wanted to put something out on my own label and so … I don’t know, that was really long-winded but yeah, there was a period of time when, well, I really didn’t think I would be talking to you right now about this record coming out. I didn’t have any idea it was ever gonna happen. I’m still struggling and I’m still nervous that I’ll be able to play these shows. But that’s what yoga’s for.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember a certain point where you felt like the tide had sort of turned or when you were like, “Yes, I can do this,” or, “I can play live and it’ll be okay”?
HANNA: No, it wasn’t like all of a sudden one day I was better. It was just like, I was not in pain more often than I was in pain. The weirdest thing to me is I started this band when I was at my worst. So I was really really, really sick, and I didn’t know what I had and I thought I was going downhill, and I really felt like it was now or never, and my husband was just like, “Just fucking do it, if you can only do it one day a month, do it one day a month, but you want this so bad and you should try.” The best thing about it was — even though I would have to cancel practice all the time because I was too sick — whenever I was able to practice I suddenly felt like myself. I don’t know if you have chronic illness, or know people with chronic illnesses, but you start to get lost. You start to wonder, is this all I am, what this illness is? It’s like your body betrayed you. I’d watch footage for The Punk Singer, and I’d think how was I jumping around like that? How did I have that much energy? It’s like I didn’t even know who that person was. And when I would play music with my new band, I was myself again, and it was the only time I was in touch with who I feel like I really am. Its kind of counterintuitive to think there would be a moment where I’d be like, “Okay I can do this,” and then I would start the band and make the record. But it was more like, “I can’t do this. This is the worst possible time I could do this, so I’d better do it.” [laughs] I feel like that’s really the story of my life, that’s what The Punk Singer should be about. It’s the person with the worst timing.
STEREOGUM: I love the crew of people you have in your new band. I remember meeting Kenny Mellman when I first moved to NYC a decade ago. I’d go see Kiki and Herb play at Fez all the time and it totally blew my mind. In addition to snagging him for your band, did you ever imagine that you and Kathi would ever play music together again?
HANNA: No! I actually didn’t. We got a lot closer actually after Bikini Kill broke up, and she was in Casual Dots and I really, really liked that band. She was writing for the Washington Post, she was doing all kinds of different things. I always thought of her becoming a fashion designer, because she’s really talented, she designed all her own clothes and sews all her own clothes, and I’m like, “Oh, she’s gonna write a book, she’s gonna design clothes.” I just didn’t see us playing music together. When the band started and Kenny and Carmine and Sara were like, “Well what about a bass player?” and I’m just like, “Can’t you and Kenny just figure that out?” I’m like “Kenny can play the bass notes on something and you can just play lower guitar parts.” I was like … kind of a jerk. It was in the back of my head that Kathi was moving to New York, and I was beyond hoping that she would want to do it and I was really scared she wouldn’t and now that seems ridiculous. You know what I mean? It’s like in movies with the most gorgeous girl in the world and nobody asks her out on a date because everyone is too scared to ask her out for a date. Kathi was like the coolest person me and Sara could think of playing with, but I was like, “She would never want to be in a band with me again because I was so crazy before.” And then I finally asked her she was like, “Yeah, sure!”
STEREOGUM: That’s amazing.
HANNA: It was the same for everyone in the band. Before asking them to join I was like pacing, freaking out. I literally felt like I was going to throw up before I asked Carmine Covelli to join and play drums. I was really scared to ask each person. And everybody, when they said yes, it felt like I had won the lottery.
STEREOGUM: I’m sure being able to play with Kathi is kind of an amazing “full circle” kind of life moment. I was walking through Soho recently and I saw all of the Riot Grrl capsule collection stuff — as well as the Riot Grrl book — at the V Files store. Having been so into the culture of Riot Grrl stuff when I was a kid — even on a farm in Oklahoma, which couldn’t have possibly been any further removed from where anything was happening — it’s so cool to see all of that stuff continue to have a life out in the world. It much be cool to see new kids discovering that stuff and getting excited about it.
HANNA: Yeah, and even than like the book, or the capsule collection thing, or The Punk Singer, or the Riot Grrl archive at NYU, which is essentially what created the basis for the book. It’s like, all that stuff is awesome, but to me it’s like it happens and I do the work associated with it and then I just sort of blank it. I just can’t sit with it too long otherwise it freaks me out. The time I feel the most in touch with the idea you’re talking about, like doing something and having it have such a long shelf life or such a long life is when I give lectures at different places and teenagers come. And they’re like “my older sister” or “my older brother” told me about this. I do lectures in places like Missouri or, you know, not in LA or New York, not huge cities. I do them in totally random colleges, like this one in New Jersey recently. I did this lecture pretty much in the middle of the night, in a basement, in this weird New Jersey college … and it was packed. And I got these tweets from this guy who was like, “I’m starting the band I always wanted to start.” And just getting that reaction from younger people and having younger people come up and be like, “I just found out about Bikini Kill yesterday.” That is pretty amazing to me.
HANNA: You know what I mean? Like even though I’m in my 40s now, it’s like I will forever be 23 because of those records — like I’m still that person. And I am still that person. I’m just better looking and smarter! [laughs] But it’s really great to have that kind of one-on-one thing with people. I don’t feel it as much with the big projects, but I feel it when a kid comes up and is like, “Oh my god, I’m the feminist at my high school. I stood up to a boy in my class when he said, ‘Women belong in the kitchen.'” Seriously! In 2013 some kid said that to me. She’s like, “I stood up and I gave a speech and everybody laughed at me and made fun of me and I had to run into the bathroom crying.” And then she’s like, “And then this girl at my school gave me Bikini Kill cassette” — because the kids are apparently into cassettes again — “and it changed my life.” Or there was this guy who interviewed me and Kathi for the V Files thing, and he said that he was in college and he felt totally alienated from everything and everyone and he went outside of his dorm and this girl with crazy-colored hair came and sat next to him and literally was like, “You ever heard of Bikini Kill?” And he was like, “No,” and she was like, “Come up to my room.” And he’s like, “You know that was twenty years ago and she’s still my best friend.”
STEREOGUM: Yeah! I love that.
HANNA: And that’s the kind of thing that breaks my heart. It’s such an honor — without even having been there or really done anything — to have been present by proxy during these amazing moments in people’s lives and then they associate you with that moment when you really don’t deserve it. [Laughs]. You know, it’s like with anything, you know, there’s certain Stones songs that I associate it with a certain time period, but it’s not like Mick Jagger really did anything nice for me, you know what I mean?
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Yeah I do, I totally know what you mean. It’s sort of how I feel about Robert Smith.
HANNA: But a lot of people really associate me or Kathi or Tobi or Billy or, you know, Johanna, or JD, with these moments in their lives, and they really are so thankful. I’ve been really lucky to get mail from people who are like, you know, “My parents kicked me out, your music made me feel better,” whatever the thing was, and you just think, “God, how lucky am I to have made a difference in a teenager’s life?”
The Punk Singer:
The Julie Ruin – “Oh Come One”: